The Gongwer Blog

The Chatfield Scandal: What We Know Tells A Lot

By Zachary Gorchow
Executive Editor and Publisher
Posted: January 11, 2022 4:47 PM

The unknowns in the scandal surrounding former House Speaker Lee Chatfield will rightfully get the focus in the days and weeks ahead.

Those unknowns:

  • Whether he will be charged criminally amid allegations from his sister-in-law, Rebekah Chatfield, that he sexually assaulted her going back to when she was either 15 or 16 years old and a student at the Northern Michigan Christian Academy owned by Mr. Chatfield's family and where he once taught. Mr. Chatfield has claimed, through his attorney, that the two had a consensual sexual relationship that began after she was 18 (if it took place before she was 18, as she alleges, by law it cannot be consensual because of the teacher/student element).
  • What financial wrongdoing is Rebekah Chatfield alleging? Her attorney has suggested Mr. Chatfield committed unspecified financial wrongdoing.
  • Is this a scandal primarily affecting Mr. Chatfield and his family or is this going to spread to the Lansing realm and envelope those close to Mr. Chatfield during his time in the House from 2015-20 and speaker from 2019-20?

But there's a whole lot we *do* know at this point and all of it is incredibly damning of Mr. Chatfield.

First, he had sexual contact with his sister-in-law – yes, his sister-in-law – for years while married.

If one takes away the legalese in the extraordinary statement Mr. Chatfield's attorney issued Friday, it in effect said (my translation), "Mr. Chatfield is not a rapist but rather someone who cheated on his wife for years with his brother's girlfriend, fiancée and then wife. He behaved horribly but not criminally."

Second, Mr. Chatfield's prolific fundraising and spending of that money is about to get rare scrutiny for a politician's funds. In my nearly 20 years of covering Michigan government and politics, I have not seen any legislator who could raise money like he did, hauling in so much money that he created four PACs just so he could provide quadruple the maximum contribution to candidates he could with one PAC (editor's note: this story has been changed to correct the number of PACs Mr. Chatfield controlled). Then there's his secretive nonprofit fund, which is likely to be the major focus on any potential investigation into financial improprieties.

Third, while hypocrisy runs rampant in politics, Mr. Chatfield has taken that trait to a new extreme.

He unseated then-Rep. Frank Foster in the 2014 Republican primary largely for two reasons: He hammered Mr. Foster over his support for extending the Elliott-Larsen Civil Rights Act to gays and lesbians and for allegedly spending too much time in Lansing.

In a 2014 Petoskey News-Review story about the race, Mr. Chatfield said he ran because he "decided my family and my freedoms were more important than my friendships."

It's already been well-chronicled that Mr. Chatfield partook in the perks of power in Lansing, regularly topping the list put together by the Michigan Campaign Finance Network of legislators who received lobbyist-paid meals. The story in Bridge Michigan took that to new heights, however, with Mr. Chatfield's brother, Aaron, Rebekah's husband, saying he served as his brother's driver to various bars and strip clubs.

Before he became speaker, Mr. Chatfield was able to get his two brothers on the House payroll as staffers, a fact reported by Gongwer at the time and a major red flag. They left the House staff once Mr. Chatfield became speaker and had hiring and firing authority for House employees. Still, the use of the old "friends and family plan" with taxpayer funds would hardly be considered consistent with Mr. Chatfield's 2014 push against insiderism.

And after making the importance of one man, one woman marriage a centerpiece of why he challenged Mr. Foster in 2014, Mr. Chatfield's multiple affairs, as revealed in his attorney's statement, shows his defense of marriage to be a sham.

Fourth, and while this is not the most important element of this scandal, it is the latest chapter on what a disaster the 1992 term limits law has been. It is not the existence of term limits in general that has wreaked havoc on the Michigan's legislative branch but the specifics of the Michigan constitutional language.

The six-year lifetime limit in the House has thrown the leadership of the House into turmoil producing speakers with two or four years of experience, some of whom were up to the challenge and others who were not.

When Mr. Chatfield left office in 2021, there was talk of him as still a rising star on the Michigan Republican bench. He's been mentioned as a possible successor to U.S. Rep. Jack Bergman (R-Watersmeet) whenever Mr. Bergman decides to retire. His name was bandied about for governor. Instead, he took an economic development job in Kalamazoo that swiftly ended in his departure after an uproar in the community about his views on gays and lesbians.

There's still a lot we don't know about this scandal.

Which makes the overwhelming nature of the little we do know at this point that much more staggering.

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